Anne M. Burford, the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, contended yesterday that the mistake in her approach to running the EPA had been one of style.

"I approached it as a manager . . . , and that simply won't fly with the eastern press corps," she said. "It won't cut it. They want a tree-hugger.

"So whoever is the administrator of the EPA at least has to come off stylistically as a prairie fairy or a tree-hugger in order to get over that barrier that the eastern press corps demands, that you be emotive about the environment," she said.

"That's not what EPA needs," Burford said. "EPA needs a hell of a tough manager. I think I was one."

Addressing members of the Senior Executive Association during a two-day seminar on ethics titled "Scandals, Scoundrels and Saints," Burford also attacked the need for federal ethics laws that she said place too much emphasis on financial disclosure forms instead of basic integrity.

"You can fill out forms and disclosures until you're blue in the face, but that does not make your actions ethical," Burford said.

Burford said she was shocked that, after her experience as EPA administrator, at least four civil servants dealing with toxic-waste programs at EPA had taken out "malpractice insurance."

Asked by a member of the association what advice she would give to anyone considering accepting a high-level government appointment, she said that No. 1 is "don't be female."

And No. 2, she said, is "if you want to make a change in government, then be prepared to go down in flames."

She said she had received poor legal advice from Justice Department lawyers when she to refused to turn over documents to the House, claiming executive privilege.

"These are the folks you have to look to to defend you in your acts as a public official," Burford told about 80 career federal executives. Only after six months "did I find out how incompetent they were," she said.

Burford came under fire in 1983 when the House held her in contempt for refusing to release EPA documents, asserting executive privilege on orders from President Reagan. Burford said that the Justice Department's decision to sue the House was one of the most "ill advised" and ill-prepared legal steps in American history.

She added that when the department lost the suit, they began to negotiate a compromise with Congress without informing her.